Huge season ahead for Sunderland youngster George Honeyman
Sunderland's 2-0 FA Cup defeat to Bradford City two-and-a-half-years ago won't live long in the memory for supporters.
But for George Honeyman it will. The academy product made his Sunderland debut that day as an 86th minute substitute back when Gus Poyet was in charge of the Black Cats.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, not to mention Sunderland managers with Dick Advocaat, Sam Allardyce and David Moyes all passing through the manager’s desk on Wearside in that time.
Honeyman remains and the now 22-year-old has just signed a new two-year deal to extend his stay at the club.
Relegation to the Championship was a damning blow for the club, the supporters, the region but with it comes an opportunity.
And Honeyman will be determined to grasp it. The 2017-18 campaign could well prove to be a make or break season for several promising Sunderland players, Honeyman included.
Honeyman is the same age as Didier Ndong, who played 33 games for Sunderland last season, the international midfielder establishing himself in the first team as Sunderland lost their top flight status.
Jordan Pickford, now 23, also broke into the team aged 22 and he has a huge future ahead of him after signing for Premier League outfit Everton for £30m.
Duncan Watmore also became a regular in the Sunderland first team squad last season aged 22, it appears to be the lucky number for promising Sunderland talent.
And Honeyman will hope he is next in line to break into the team on a regular basis.
Sunderland, hamstrung by a mammoth £110million debt and a crippling wage bill that will reduce by 40 per cent, but will still be very high considering their reduced income, will not be awash with cash this summer.
The new boss will have a limited budget and fans should brace themselves for more free agents and loan signings.
Yet it will also open the door for more of the younger players on the fringes to stake their claim.
The likes of Honeyman, Lynden Gooch (21), Donald Love (22) and Paddy McNair (22) whose season was cut cruelly short by a serious knee injury.
Young strikers Joel Asoro and Josh Maja, both 18, are among the next generation eager to stake a claim.
Time will tell if the current crop of Under-23 players are good enough to grace Sunderland’s first team. Many will argue they can’t do any worse than the first team did last season.
The 5-0 humbling to Porto B is a clear sign that all hope should not rest on Elliott Dickman’s youngsters, but there will be opportunities next season in the Championship.
It may be that the next batch of younger players, not quite ready for first team action, are sent out on loan first in a bid to give them experience of the Football League and beyond.
Honeyman has been there and now he is looking to establish himself as a first team regular.
In 2015-16, Honeyman was sent out on loan to National League side Gateshead, where he scored once in nine appearances for the Tynesiders.
On his return he was named on the bench for what turned out to be Sam Allardyce’s final game in charge of Sunderland – the 2-2 draw with Watford at the end of last season, his Premier League debut.
In the season just gone, Honeyman made six first team appearances and he was one shy of triggering an automatic contract extension, having been one of nine players due to be out of contract this summer.
A bizarre training ground mishap which saw Lamine Kone fall on his back scuppered his hopes of ending the season in the first team.
Honeyman, who started against Hull City, was then ruled out of the games against Swansea City, Arsenal and Chelsea.
That didn’t prevent former boss David Moyes moving quickly to tie Honeyman down to a new two-year deal for the attacking midfielder who joined Sunderland when he was 10.
Having been in and around the squad and seeing him on the training field daily, Moyes was impressed.
Speaking in early May, former boss Moyes said: “George has mainly stayed with the club, he’s had a couple of short loans, but he has come back and worked his way to the front of the queue.
“It is his attitude and his character, and his football of course, that has earned him the chance.”
Honeyman & Co will now have to impress ANOTHER new Sunderland boss when the players return to pre-season training at the end of June.
And it’s a chance he will have to grasp with both hands with first team opportunities likely to be far more readily available.